Is Internet access a human right?
July 14th, 2011
01:20 PM ET

Is Internet access a human right?

Editor's Note: Jan Chipchase is Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at frog, a global innovation firm. This post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

By Jan Chipchase – Special to CNN

We’re halfway done with 2011, a year marked by remarkable, revolutionary uprisings in the Middle East - uprisings facilitated and documented on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.

When the governments in Egypt and Syria tried to control the flow of information from citizens by blocking Internet access and other forms of communication, the worldwide perception of these acts was that they were sinister and cruel. People were silenced. It was as if their vocal chords were cut; it was as if we, outside the Middle East, were blinded.

Was the impact so dramatic because today Internet access has reached the status of a basic need – like clean water or electricity?

The United Nations, in fact, recently declared that disconnecting people from the Internet is a violation of human rights. And if connectivity is a human right, how do we help make the Internet more accessible to everyone – from those in the throes of a revolution, to fellow citizens back home? What is our responsibility to bridge the digital divide?The World Bank's international infrastructure statistics provide a snapshot of how the human need for Internet connectivity keeps growing exponentially. In the early 1990s, according to the Bank, there were 0.3 Internet users for every 100 people. Today, that figure is 27.1 per 100.

If you are living your life online it is easy to be caught up in the assumptions of your own, gilded online lifestyle – a broad spectrum of information and news on demand; entertainment at the touch of your fingertips, more of everything faster than before.

Read: Are we still an innovation nation?

In the United States, 92 percent of Americans rely on multiple sources for news, combining traditional print, TV, and radio and online sources, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and among those who get news online, 75 percent receive their news via email or posts on social networking sites. 52 percent share news links with others via those sites. Statistics such as these suggest that those people who do not have access to the Internet are missing out; not only are we deprived of their voices, but also of their ability to learn about and interact with their communities and the world.

I bring up American statistics because even in the U.S., the concept of Internet connectivity as a basic human right, or even a form of public infrastructure, is not really an everyday practice.

Remember the first half of the 2000s, when numerous sophisticated cities, such as San Francisco and Chicago, trumpeted plans for free municipal Wi-Fi? Well, government officials later discovered that high costs and the commercial interests of giant cable and phone companies, who control where and how wires connecting citizens to the Internet are placed, were huge hurdles in making such visions real. Even San Francisco, that hotbed of innovation, scrapped its plans for "free" municipal Wi-Fi.

Check Out: More from the "Global Innovation Showcase" created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

Though many Americans can access free Wi-Fi in libraries, parks, and other public places, the service is limited. Waiting for a computer connected to the Internet in a public library can mean waiting in long, discouraging queues to do so.

Free outdoor Wi-Fi in U.S. parks is often in a very limited radius, or of spotty quality. It's hard to imagine that some Americans simply can not afford to access the Internet. But in theUnited States, it can be more expensive than in other parts of the so-called developed world: broadband-access fees are currently higher in the U.S. than in Europe or the Asia-Pacific region, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

In many ways, the water parallel can apply.  Cheap, clean tap water, provided via public infrastructure, is obviously a healthy and humane service that all Americans expect. But imagine if high-priced, privatized water was only available to those who could afford it in the United States. If we are to accept that affordable Internet access is a basic human right, then we need to be willing to confront such challenging thoughts. And do something about it.

When cutting off Egyptian and Syrian protesters’ Internet access is perceived as “censorship,” then pricing Internet access out of American consumers’ reach as more and more basic communication happens online each day is effectively an act of censorship, too. Our attitudes about the Arab spring hold up a mirror to ourselves.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jan Chipchase.

Post by:
Topics: Human Rights • Innovation • Internet • Technology

soundoff (153 Responses)
  1. Page S

    Poor analogy. Humans need clean water to survive. Without clean water we die. Internet is not needed to sustain life. It is a major convenience only. I really do not live by what the UN defines. The UN has become a joke anyway. Iran or similar countries on the human rights panel is laughable.

    July 17, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  2. william newton lee

    Free internet, wifi, 3G, around THE World. You are old fashion, step aside,let's get along with progess. Good by big brother. Let THE good times roll. Then you will have a one world people.

    July 17, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  3. william newton lee

    Scare of THE future!!!!! One tablet IN every house around THE world. Who's going pay for that, you alread did now they are recycling it, ,wave up. World THE future ls yours to hold.

    July 17, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Reply
  4. Scott

    Any 'right' that enables a government to take something of value from one person and give it to another is not a right. This is theft disguised as humanism.

    The Internet is not an abstraction belonging to 'the people.' Rather, it is a collection of intellectual and physical properties born of the hard work and investment of real people who have a real 'right' to their property and investment.

    July 18, 2011 at 12:46 am | Reply
    • Nathalie

      Thanks for visiting my inlone portfolio Linda, I am glad it inspired you. It has become a passion for me and I have to be aware that I don't sacrifice other important parts of my life by consuming too much of my time creating, upgrading and maintaining. I only wish that we had better internet speed at our learning centre so that the students could try some of these wonderful tools and resources! I regret that it took me so long to get on 20/20 vision, but I hope to visit regularly and become part of the community! Thanks so much for your hard work and for inviting me! Looking forward to seeing more. (Deb)

      March 13, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  5. Will S

    You lost me at "so-called developed world". Get a clue.

    July 18, 2011 at 1:11 am | Reply
  6. Don

    If you feel free Wifi is a right, hit up McDonald's and order a water.

    July 18, 2011 at 6:02 am | Reply
  7. jb2817

    If this is true then a free ANUS laptop is also a human right The XXL not the cheapo one.

    July 18, 2011 at 7:18 am | Reply
  8. Krehator

    Stupid. We have lost touch with what is really important. We can no longer tell the difference between need and want.

    July 18, 2011 at 8:19 am | Reply
  9. Brian Branfireun

    Interesting article but the water analogy is a bit off since the UN was unable to resolve that even access to clean potable water was a human right. Seems like we should get that sorted before addressing issues that we don't even need to physically survive.

    July 18, 2011 at 8:31 am | Reply
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    July 18, 2011 at 9:11 am | Reply
  11. Bec215

    The more human 'rights' we identify, the more watered-down the significance of calling something a human right becomes. Internet access is not a human right, and it's a ridiculous sham to label it as such. Internet access alone does not control speech. Internet Access does not say anything. Internet Access is not creating messages... HUMANS create the message. That is why preventing peaceful protests IS a human rights violation – the protest itself is not a human right... it's the fact people use the medium of a protest – a public gathering – to speak their minds. People also go onto TV and speak their mind – but no one is saying TV is a Human Right... and rightly so.

    July 19, 2011 at 8:56 am | Reply
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  13. Square D Disconnect

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    March 6, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Reply
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    April 5, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Reply
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  16. Patternguru714

    Proposing the Internet as a public utility such as water is a very slippery slope. How would the author define what other items should be treated in this manner? Is it popularity? The fact that so many have diverted their daily communications and interaction to depend on it? If so, then why not abscond every such item? How about the iPhone? What if suddenly Apple said "sorry we're cancelling support for our operating system and replacing it with something else?" Should there be a rally that our rights are being suppressed and therefore the technology should be publicly funded? I don't see a definition which could work to suddenly make the coordination and products of thousands of private corporations the responsibility of the government. Let's not forget, that's exactly what the Internet is. Private lines, private ISPs, corporate owned routers and servers. Cooperative capitalism at it's finest, though it was created for the U.S. military originally. I'm not saying this critically, it's just something many forget. It's worked incredibly to innovate to this point. Public utilities are the base necessities for living. Water, Heat, simple phone emergency services.

    April 16, 2012 at 5:57 am | Reply
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    April 26, 2012 at 8:36 am | Reply
  18. High Speed Internet

    In my opinion, we all have the right to have a high speed Internetinternet access for it was discovered for the betterment of all people.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:20 am | Reply
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